The group was discussing whether there should be the equivalent of political parties within their online world. “The party system is a good way to get ideas coalesced around a particular candidate,” Smith said, despite others’ reservations. He suggested using the American system of democratic primaries as a model. “All the different candidates go in there and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to have our ideas clash, and the best person is going to get the votes of the community.’”
Meanwhile, a storm was brewing in Libya around similar issues: party systems, candidates, control, power. People were fighting over some of the same values Smith was lobbying for in Eve. And as he discovered to his horror just five months after the Fanfest, they were willing to kill for what they believed in.
Through the summer of 2012 a series of violent episodes in Libya heightened anxiety among Americans there—kidnappings, assassination attempts, attacks perpetrated by Al Qaeda operatives. The American diplomats, led by Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, continued their work. Then on the evening of September 11 the situation exploded in a crescendo of terror outside Sean Smith’s room in the consulate.
It began at 9:42 p.m., when mobs of armed men launched their assault. Seventeen minutes later a U.S. surveillance drone was dispatched to fly overhead. Less than 90 minutes after the initial assault, President Obama was alerted to the situation by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
By that time Smith had already typed his last words online from his desk. As he heard the security alarm sound over the gunfire, a security agent tried desperately to lead him and Ambassador Stevens toward safety. But there was no safety to be found. The building burst into flames, and asphyxiating black smoke choked the air. By the time the three reached an escape window, the smoke was so thick they could barely breathe.
On the brink of passing out, the security agent leaped out a window, gulping in air. Then he tore back inside. Frantically, he peered through the conflagration for Smith and Stevens, only to feel his lungs dam up with hellish darkness. Desperate to stay alive, the agent bolted for the roof to alert backup. An armored car arrived, and a team of agents stormed the building, scanning for Smith and Stevens in the flames.
In the online world that Smith called home, Goons were reeling. Smith had abruptly logged off mid-chat. Was he alive or dead? This wasn’t the first time Smith had been caught in crossfire, and his fellow Goons figured he was okay. “Sean, as long as Goons have known him, has been in some tough spots where places were hot and getting attacked,” Lohman says. “He drops and says, ‘Gotta go, gotta go,’ and everyone laughs about it. There’s a dark humor element. This was one of those times.”
But as news of the attack hit the internet, Lohman began to feel increasingly nervous. With contacts from his job in government security and the spy world, he tapped his channels for information but kept coming up empty. “No one had anything, and the State operations center wasn’t talking,” he recalls. Finally another government-employed Goon tipped him off that Vile Rat was likely inside the consulate at the time. Casualties were being reported. “It’s probably Sean,” he told Lohman, “but I don’t know for sure.”
Over at CCP in Iceland, Conover reached out to Gianturco to see if he knew anything. The news wasn’t good. “Oh no, the attack on the Libyan consulate,” Gianturco said. “Oh no, he’s in there.”
“Relax,” Conover replied, trying to reassure himself against the unimaginable. “He’s fine, no way.”
In Eve, as in any other video game, there’s one large difference from life off-line. In a video game, you have control. You can sit down and escape into a pixelated universe of friends and fun. Yes, you can die, but you can always come back. Even in Eve, where mortality is part of the game, if you die you can always enter the game again as a clone of your former self. You can live forever, fix your mistakes, find community and solace. And if anything goes wrong, all you have to do is hit a few buttons on your keyboard and start all over. That’s what made this game such a haven for Smith and everyone else who found a home in Eve.
There was just one problem: It wasn’t real.
The next day, Gianturco took to the Eve Online community to tell them that, this time, real war, real flames, real smoke, the awful and uncontrollable reality of reality, had beaten their friend. “My people, I have grievous news,” he wrote. “Vile Rat has been confirmed to be KIA in Benghazi; his family has been informed and the news is likely to break out on the wire services soon. Needless to say, we are in shock, have no words and have nothing but sympathy for his family and children. I have known Vile Rat since 2006; he was one of the oldest of old-guard Goons and one of the best and most effective diplomats this game has ever seen. His family is in our thoughts and prayers.”
Smith, Stevens and two American security agents had been killed in the attack. The news sent shock waves through the community online and at CCP. “It’s just fucking odd,” Touborg recalls. “Of all the people in Africa, four Americans die and you knew one of them—it was like getting struck by lightning.”
“This is a man who was doing good work in Libya, trying to help people, and for this to happen was a terrible way to go,” Conover says. “And the flip side was that Sean touched a lot of people in the game. As a diplomat, he was the guy people would talk to, he was the guy making sure we had friends. After seven years the people you touch and the ripples you create are tremendous. That’s what makes it such a terrible thing.”
It wasn’t the first time a gamer in Eve died in real life, and there was some hesitancy to treat Smith’s death differently from others. But the pilots of Eve knew this was unique given the awful nature of the attack and Smith’s legendary status in the game. He was their greatest diplomat, online and off, and they would give him the send-off he deserved.
In addition to being memorialized in news pages and broadcasts across the world, Sean Smith became an unlikely lightning rod of outrage.
Conservative talk show host Glenn Beck accused Smith of being a CIA operative.
Smith’s mother briefly took to the airwaves, pleading for answers from the government. “I begged them to tell me what happened,” she said. “I look at TV and I see bloody handprints on walls, thinking, My God, is that my son’s? I don’t know if he was shot. I don’t know—I don’t know. They haven’t told me anything. They are still studying it. And the things that they are telling me are just outright lies.”
The deaths of Smith and the other Americans have continued to plague the Obama administration. Despite high-profile hearings, the entire truth about what happened in Benghazi may never be known.
In death as in life, Sean Smith was honored in the two worlds he inhabited. In the real world the tribute came on September 14 at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C. A Marine procession carried the coffins of those killed in Libya onto the tarmac, draped in American flags. A somber crowd, including Smith’s family, gathered as President Obama and Hillary Clinton took the podium to address them.
“Sean Smith, it seems, lived to serve,” Obama said. “First in the Air Force, then with you at the State Department. He knew the perils of this calling from his time in Baghdad. There in Benghazi, far from home, he surely thought of Heather and Samantha and Nathan, and he laid down his life in service to us all. Today Sean is home.”
Clinton also cited the friends, family and colleagues Smith left behind but added “and that’s just in this world. Because online, in the virtual worlds that Sean helped create, he is also being mourned by countless competitors, collaborators and gamers who shared his passion.”
For Smith and the others, after all, Eve was more than just a way to merge his online and off-line worlds of war games. It was a community. As a real-life envoy he was often on the move, far from his family, his friends and the safety of suburban life. Whether he was in Pretoria or Baghdad, he could sit down, press a few buttons and tap into a world of players who knew him better than anyone at his temporary posts. “At the end of three years he’s off to somewhere else,” says Lohman. “He didn’t have time to get to know anybody. The internet is always on, so he put his time there.”
Gamers took to Twitter to honor his memory. “Sean Smith had it right,” tweeted one. “Use diplomacy in real life and only fight wars with other gamers online.” Some posted YouTube videos. “To the rest of the world, his name was Sean Smith,” reads the text overlay of one as it fades into dreamy space clouds. “To us, his name was Vile Rat.” But the most elaborate honor came inside the game itself. Dozens of players steered their ships into outer space, positioning themselves over a patch of deep black darkness and flickering white stars. There, they ignited spherical defense fields that emitted a purplish glow. From a distance, the lights of the individual purple spheres blurred together to spell a phrase, one that burned indelibly in their hearts and minds:
“RIP Vile Rat.”